94. Six ‘C’s, the fundamentals of urban design governance

My new book, Urban Design Governance, soft powers and the European Experience, stems from the Urban Maestro project, a unique collaboration between UN-Habitat, BMA (the Brussels Bouwmeester or city architect) and UCL.  The book, which is available as a free download, takes a deep dive into the governance of urban design across Europe.  

I discuss the book’s coverage and content on YouTube, but in essence the focus is on the use of soft powers to influence design quality with the aim of understanding the scope, use and effectiveness of the range of informal (non-regulatory) urban design governance tools that governments, municipalities, and others have at their disposal.  

Around Europe, the range of informal tools available to government across its different scales (national to local) are diverse.  When mixed with the formal regulatory tools of urban design governance and incentivised through financial mechanisms (a particular focus of Urban Maestro), the outcome is a hugely complex European landscape of varied and often innovative practices from which to learn. 

The diversity of informal tools reflected in a European typology of urban design governance tools

However this translates locally, the two years of discussions, sharing of practices and analyses that underpinned Urban Maestro suggested that governments might begin by reviewing six fundamental factors, the six ‘C’s of effective urban design governance.

1. culture of design quality

The quality of the built environment impacts profoundly on the social and economic opportunities available to citizens as well as on the health of the environment and local populations.  Nurturing a shared desire to see high quality architecture, streets and public spaces that support an inclusive urban life requires sufficient and predictable funding, a willingness to actively engage in shaping places, and an ability to persuade investors and citizens that such a commitment is worthwhile. 

Producing a high-quality urban environment requires a culture change across the many people and institutions that together shape places and spaces.  Places that have achieved it have typically worked to establish such a widely shared culture of quality, but a leap forward of this type is made of many small steps encompassed in numerous decisions associated with the delivery of individual plans, projects and spaces.  It requires a continuity of effort – well beyond the duration of any political mandate – as well as many short-term actions that combine to deliver more than the sum of the parts.  A culture change has been delivered when no one questions the need for design quality and when it is quite simply, the expectation.

2. Capacity for design quality

The most sophisticated governance of urban design starts with the public sector recognising its own huge potential to decisively shape new development and existing places for the better.  A first key step is to put in place the necessary administrative structures or organisations to deliver on the ambitions and to invest in people with the right capabilities and commitment to command trust and wield authority when negotiating design outcomes.

This may involve enhancing the function of existing structures and arrangements or creating new ones, but any arrangements need to be suitably empowered to challenge existing practices and bureaucratic processes, particularly if they are sanctioning substandard outcomes.  In doing so it may be wise to start small and build from there, selecting a single tool such as design review, design competitions, citizens juries, awards schemes, and so forth.  If a tool works well, it is necessary to commit resources to it and make it economically sustainable, adding other tools as and when resources allow.  Leadership is key and determining from who or where that is coming is critical.

3. Coordination of design quality

A culture of quality is underpinned by having the right tools in place that will enable city authorities to consistently encourage and require design quality.  Formal regulatory instruments are important, but so too are the sorts of informal and flexible tools such as design guidance, professional enabling, on-site experimentation, and so forth that can leverage on the expertise and creativity of motivated individuals and utilise the soft powers of the public sector to inform and actively engage key parties in the delivery of design quality ambitions. 

The most sophisticated approaches use a mix of tools, creating continuity in approaches with success coming from aligning a diverse set of tools towards the same quality objectives.  For example, traditional regulatory tools such as spatial development plans, construction regulations, and local taxation, can be given a quality dimension through combining them with softer approaches across the six categories of informal urban design governance tools (to the left of the typology diagram).  These are cost effective to deliver and when used in combination with financial mechanisms, can help to maximise value from public resources by encouraging more informed and effective public spending. 

4. Collaboration for design quality

A feature of much contemporary development is an imbalance of power in development processes.  Informal tools of urban design governance can be particularly effective at garnering and amplifying community voices, and for motivating private interests to both engage in a conversation about the future of place and to commit to playing a role in delivering public design quality ambitions and long-term visions.  The quality of these conversations is critical for enriching understanding and mutual learning.

For example, urban design processes can be seen as political or developer-led processes, leaving residents feeling side-lined.  Here soft power tools such as co-creation and collaborative management can help to legitimise processes and inspire better outcomes.  Similarly, economic resources and incentives can be fully integrated with design objectives when ambitions, methods and terminologies are fully aligned.  Demonstrating leadership on design is essential and soft powers can facilitate this, but it requires listening, garnering support and recognising diverse private and public interests.  

5. Commitment to design quality

Too often design quality is considered in a bubble separated from the economics of development.  There is huge potential to incentivise the delivery of urban design quality, while saving on public funding, by linking any direct or indirect public sector financial contribution – land, loans, remediation, infrastructure, knowhow, partnership, etc. – to the aspirations in informal urban design governance tools.  Mechanisms of land value capture and Public Private Partnerships have significant potential to make this link.

These tools offer tried and tested means to fill the public funding gap and align private actions to community-wide quality objectives.  They are not just concerned with capturing private sector finance, but also private expertise to compliment public and community knowledge and resources.  Tying design strings to such financial commitment can help to ensure that outcomes meet public quality aspirations and deliver long-term place value for all.

6. Continuity of design quality

Everywhere is different, and practices that might be right for one municipality won’t be right for another.  As Urban Design Governance, soft powers and the European Experience shows, there is great potential to learn from practices in cities that have made the transition to a culture of urban design quality.  In this respect, it is easier to transfer practices that use the soft powers of the state because usually they work independently of defined legislative and governance regimes and can be adapted to diverse and changing local contexts.

Soft powers can facilitate innovation, allow adjustment when outcomes are disappointing and the rapid commitment of more resources and political capital when practices succeed.  But there is a need to create space (and time) for experimentation, incorporating continuous learning and refining of practices.  Such local scale innovations – both inside and outside public administrations – can then be scaled up to inform more general and formal policies. 

The question is how to create a stronger drive in the public sector and maintain a continuous learning process.  In this context, adding to the six ‘C’s with which the book concludes, there may be need for what one commentator at the final Urban Maestro event defined as a seventh ‘C’ – “Come on!” – a motivational call to municipalities to get them going.  The book demonstrates how.

The six ‘C’s, fundamentals for effective urban design governance

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL